PHNOM PENH—Ross Dunkley, the sole foreign owner invested in Burma’s state-controlled media, faces charges of assaulting a woman and
breaches of the country’s immigration laws, in what many observers, including some of Dunkley’s own business partners, view as a power play aimed at ousting the Australian from his stake in the Myanmar Times.
Dunkley has since been released on bail, part of which was paid by his Burmese business partner, Tin Tun Oo, who was named CEO of the Myanmar Times in the days after Dunkley’s initial arrest. Dunkley has subsequently downplayed the conspiracy angle, and hopes to be acquitted soon.
He is well known in media circles in Cambodia after buying into the Phnom Penh Post, one of the country’s two English language dailies, back in 2007.
Cambodia is a challenging media market with freedom of expression under threat from a combination of formal and informal codes that inhibit the country’s press, according to several observers.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior officials do not shy from suing media, and the Phnom Penh Post has been hit with lawsuits in the past, while a local NGO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), points to numerous cases of journalists being threatened with violence or worse, in a scenario akin to the Philippines, where guns are used to cow reporters operating in an otherwise free media environment.
Blogger Sopheap Chak, who writes regularly for a number of online publications, told The Irrawaddy that sometimes her friends express concern if she is too outspoken, telling her that “Cambodia is not like America or Europe.”
However, she said that although she considers her words carefully—as any reporter or writer ought—she believes that “if we keep silent, intimidation will take over, and we will lose our constitutional right to free speech.”
Unlike the Myanmar Times, the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily—the country’s other English language publication—do not have their articles vetted by a censorship board, and publish stories on human rights and corruption that would be unthinkable in any Burmese newspaper.
However, the Khmer-language media is watched more closely by the government, which dominates TV, a medium focusing mostly on entertainment rather than news.
Taken along with proposed trade union and NGO laws—dismissed by opponents as thinly veiled attempts by the Cambodian government to limit freedom of association—it all sounds retrograde.
On the other hand, Burma, if its new government is to be believed, has taken the “first steps to a free press system.” So said U Tint Swe, the deputy director general of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, on March 29, with the crucial caveat that any new exceptions to the censorship regime would not include news or business publications. At the same time, the new government announced the imminent launch of a new state mouthpiece to be called The Myawaddy.
Cambodia has no equivalent to the New Light of Myanmar, where anti-democracy and anti-Western invective is the norm, often delivered in unwittingly comic syntax that makes North Korean propaganda seem serene and eloquent by comparison.
In turn, there is not a really a Cambodian “exile media”—along the lines of Burma’s, such as the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Mizzima in India, or the array of Thailand-based ethnic-focused news agencies such as the Shan Herald Agency for News.
Burma’s new government includes a cabinet comprised of just four civilians; the rest are from the army. The new president, Thein Sein, was a military general and prime minister under the previous military junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council. Over 80 percent of seats in the country’s new legislative bodies are held by the army and its party affiliate, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Thein Sein has spoken about the media since assuming his new office, describing the sector as “the fourth estate” and calling for the new government to show respect for the country’s press. Fine words, but Burma is the world’s fourth-highest jailer of media workers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the second highest after Eritrea if the number of imprisoned journalists is weighed on a per head of population basis.
The Burma Media Association, comprising Burmese journalists-in-exile based in Thailand, puts the number of jailed journalists in Burma at 22, though the real number may be higher.
On Feb. 4, less than a week after Burma’s new parliament sat for the first time, video reporter Maung Maung Zeya was sentenced to a combined total of 13 years in jail for a a variety of alleged offences under Burma’s various draconian codes, such as the Unlawful Association Act, the Immigration Act and the Electronics Act.
According to Alerts Coordinator at the Southeast Asian Press Alliance George Amurao: “The new government has also yet to revoke any of its repressive laws that restrict freedom of expression. Until these are replaced with laws that improve the free expression environment, Burma remains governed by a de facto repressive regime—new government or no.”
Maung Maung Zeya’s son, Sithu Zeya, aged 21, is also in jail, given an eight-year sentence for attempting to report on a series of bombings in Rangoon in April 2010. Both father and son were reporters working on a clandestine basis for the DVB. Sithu Zeya has been tortured in Insein Prison, according to media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontiers.
Maung Maung Zeya’s conviction came soon after a blogger Nat Soe (real name Kaung Myat Hlaing) was given a 10-year jail sentence under the Electronics Act, joining more than 20 other journalists who have been given lengthy prison sentences for merely functioning as arms of Burma’s “fourth estate.”
To compare, a Cambodian World Food Program staff member was given a six-month jail sentence in Cambodia, after downloading and printing material from KI Media, a political blog that runs material critical of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen. While the sentence was light compared to those handed out in Burma, the fact that it was issued at all is a cause for concern, said Sopheap Chak.
Online and new media have been slow to take off in both countries, but for different reasons. Most of Cambodia’s 100,000 or so Internet users are concentrated in the capital and other cities (and in Phnom Penh fast and free WiFi is easily available in many cafés and restaurants). Low levels of English literacy, scant rural electricity supply and lack of disposable income mean that widespread use of Khmer script web browsers on mobile phones will be needed if the country’s Internet usage is to increase.
Burma has slightly more Internet users than Cambodia, though those absolute numbers are weighed against the respective populations in both countries, Cambodia’s 15 million against Burma’s estimated 48 million or more.
In Cambodia, there are 30 Internet service providers (ISPs), an open market in stark contrast to Burma’s rigidly monitored Internet service. However, depending on which ISP, KI Media might be blocked or it might be accessible.
There has been no formal order issued to block or censor the site, but it appears that behind-the-scenes deals between the government and some ISPs have seen the blog disappear in several places.
Mobile phones are much more widely used in Cambodia than Burma, with an estimated 6.4 million subscribers being fought for by nine service providers, all offering low-cost phones and deals.
According to United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP), Cambodia was the first country in the world to have more mobile phone subscribers than landlines—with the paucity of the latter contributing to the low level of Internet usage outside the urban areas.
Perhaps these statistics prompted Hun Sen’s recent outburst dismissing the likelihood of a Tunisia-style revolt in his country, which apparently has little chance of an Internet-facilitated public demonstration.
However, in another marked difference with Burma, public protests at land grabs and forced evictions related to Chinese investment and development projects are a growing phenomenon, perhaps enough to make the Cambodian elites nervous.
For now, at least, perhaps old-school SMS-organized rallies are more of a threat, something like the 2001 street demonstrations in Manila, that helped depose then-president of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada.
Not for nothing, perhaps, that the CPP banned text messaging on the eve of the 2007 elections in Cambodia.
According to the Burmese government, just 1.3 million Burmese use mobile phones. For Burmese wanting to talk to the outside world, the prohibitive costs—around US $4.50 per minute to call the United States in a country with an average per capita income of $469—have made Internet-based telephony such as Skype increasingly popular.
However the government recently ordered a ban on such services, a telling irony coming so soon after campaigners against sanctions on Burma asked the West to stop “isolating” the country’s people.
Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group | www.irrawaddy.org